Spy suicide scandal focuses attention on Israel’s foreign Jews

The jailhouse suicide of an Australian immigrant who may have betrayed Israel's Mossad has focused attention on the agency's recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover of their native passports.

After a three-year blackout was broken by an Australian TV expose, Israel on Wednesday acknowledged that a dual national had committed suicide in prison where he had been kept isolated in the name of state security.

Authorities made no effort to deny reports the man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a Melbourne Jew who moved to Israel, became a citizen, joined its military and Mossad, only to be arrested in early 2010 on suspicion of betraying secrets after Canberra began investigating trips he took to Middle East trouble-spots.

Such travel would be impossible for an Israeli but not for an Australian, especially if – according to one media account – Zygier used a passport reissued under a new, Anglicised name.

Israel has made little secret of seeing its influxes of foreign Jews, often from Muslim countries, as intelligence assets given their language skills and cultural savvy. Many immigrants recall being tapped by Mossad recruiters or asked to loan out their original passports, presumably a cover for spies.

But Israeli officials insist that Jews abroad are never used by Mossad against the interests of their countries – a lesson from the enlistment in the 1980s of U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, whose discovery provoked lasting outrage in Washington.

While some intelligence veterans say employing foreign-born Jews is consistent with the universally elastic ethics of espionage, it has dangers. Vetting foreign volunteers is difficult, opening Israel up to security leaks less likely with homegrown spies. Some experts say Israel also needs to be wary of miring allies in its shadow wars and stirring suspicions about the allegiances of Jews abroad.


Warren Reed, a retired officer with Australia's overseas intelligence service ASIS, said the Zygier affair could endanger compatriots who might now be mistaken for Mossad spies while travelling in areas hostile to Israelis.

“This poses a threat to a lot of people, especially journalists who move around frequently,” Reed told Reuters.

While all intelligence agencies work with assumed or filched identities, Reed argued, Mossad creates a bigger probability of reprisals by “by being more severe in its actions, given Israel's security predicament”.

These actions are reputed to include assassinations, such as of a Palestinian weapons procurer in Dubai in 2010, in which the suspected Israeli hit-team used forged Australian and European passports.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida quoted unidentified Western sources on Thursday as saying Zygier took part in the Dubai operation and offered information on the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in return for the emirate's protection.

In another twist, Australia's Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.


Israel has not confirmed publicly that Zygier was a Mossad operative. But Avigdor Feldman, a criminal attorney who met Zygier in his isolated jail cell a day or two before his death, appeared to let slip that he was indeed a spy.

“The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive,” Feldman told Israel's Kol Barama radio station.

Nick Pratt, a retired U.S. Marines colonel and CIA officer now with the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, took a forgiving view of Mossad passport tactics.

“Israel is a unique country. They live in a bad neighbourhood and they will do anything they can to preserve and protect that country, and quite frankly I have absolutely no problem with that,” he said.

Citing his own experience of foreign nationals being brought in as CIA officers and then deployed to their areas of origin, Pratt said the priority was to ensure that their loyalty was exclusively to the recruiting country.

“Intelligence agencies break the law – but other people's laws,” he said.

Both Reed and Pratt said disclosures of Jewish diaspora involvement in Israeli espionage could stoke anti-Semitism and allegations of dual loyalty – an opinion shared by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence issues.

“This is a problem that has always been there, and will remain,” Shimron said. “I don't know what to say, other than that the rule is: Never turn a Jew against his host country.”

While Zygier's family declined all public comment on his case, friends of the dead man recalled his Zionist upbringing and pride in Israel, where he was married and had children.

The idea that someone like Zygier had violated Mossad's code of silence, perhaps even imperilling lives, provoked soul-searching in Israel. “Did the Mossad operative commit treason?” asked the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on its front page.

Shimron said this was a possibility, given Israel's past cases of double-agents and moles, among them Jewish immigrants.

“There's always the chance of bad apples in a batch of recruits. The trick is to weed them out in good time,” he said.

Reed suggested Mossad was likelier to miss warning signs in candidates from abroad, where Israel would find it harder to carry out comprehensive background checks and psychological screening, especially if there were a rush to find recruits to fend off proliferating Middle East menaces.

“If they don't have the time and inclination to carefully build up a picture of the person, including the first 20 years of his or her life, they never really find out what's in their heart,” Reed said.

“I would imagine that this paradox is a real problem for Israeli intelligence, and possibly people there are saying now, 'I warned you!'”

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Australian court’s failure to extradite alleged ex-Nazi raises ire, questions

In a court ruling that is bringing new attention to Australia’s failure to prosecute alleged Nazi-era war criminals, the government will not surrender to Hungary the man believed to be the country’s last World War II war crimes suspect.

The nation’s High Court ruled Wednesday that Karoly “Charles” Zentai will remain in Australia and not be extradited to his native Hungary on a war crimes charge.

The long-awaited ruling handed down in Canberra dismissed an appeal by the federal government of a Federal Court judgment that Zentai could not be extradited because war crimes was not an offense in Hungary on Nov. 8, 1944—the date that Zentai is accused of helping to murder   Balazs, a Jewish teenager, in Budapest.

The federal government had approved Zentai’s extradition to Hungary in 2009, but the decision was overturned on appeal last year in the Federal Court. The government then sought the ruling of the justices of nation’s highest court, which has now dismissed the appeal.

[Related: Suspected war criminal escapes extradition from Australia on legal technicality]

Zentai is not the first alleged Nazi war criminal in Australia to avoid facing his accusers. Konrads Kalejs, an alleged leader of Latvia’s notorious Arajs Kommando unit, accused of murdering thousands of Jews and gypsies in Riga in 1942-43, died in Australia in 2001 while awaiting a court decision on whether he should be extradited to his native Latvia.

Zentai, who was a cadet sergeant in the pro-Nazi Hungarian army, has denied vehemently that he helped in the murder of the 18-year-old Balazs for not wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David before dumping his body in the Danube River. The 90-year-old Perth pensioner, who was first arrested by Australian Federal Police in 2005, claimed he left Budapest the day before Balazs was killed.

In their 5-1 verdict, the High Court judges argued that the extradition could not be approved because the Hungarian authorities had requested Zentai’s surrender for war crimes, which was not an offense under Hungarian law at the time.

Zentai greeted the ruling emotionally.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in Perth. “I’ve been so stressed, the last few days in particular.”

But the judgment was met by a chorus of condemnation as well.

Michael Danby, a Jewish legislator of the governing Labor Party, slammed the verdict as “appalling.”

In a speech to be delivered in parliament Wednesday night in Canberra, Danby said Hungary enacted laws in 1945 to retrospectively make war crimes an offense.

“Now when a country seeks to pursue and even investigate the crimes of former Nazis like Zentai, they will be prevented from doing so by a blockheaded majority of High Court judges,” he said. “Those who voted for it shall live in infamy.”

Danby said he had already approached the Hungarian ambassador to ask whether officials in Budapest will seek Zentai’s extradition for murder.

Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and one of the world’s leading Nazi hunters, has pursued the case since 2005. That’s when the Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance helped flush out Zentai’s whereabouts.

“It’s a very sad day for Australia, a very sad day for justice and a very sad day for the victims of the Holocaust, their relatives and anyone who has any sense of empathy with the victims of the Holocaust,” he told JTA. “Today my thoughts are with the Balazs family.”

He said the decision was “not a reflection of Zentai’s guilt or innocence,” but that Australia has “totally failed” on the issue of Nazi war criminals.

“It pains me to criticize Australia, but it has officially confirmed its status as the worst of the Anglo countries which sought to take legal action against Nazi war criminals,” he said.

In 1987, the Australian government opened a Special Investigations Unit and investigated 841 suspects. The unit closed five years later without a single conviction.

“That was a disaster and we’re paying the price to this day,” Zuroff said. “The only people who benefitted were the Nazi war criminals whose haven in Australia proved to be the right choice.”

But he vowed the fight for justice is not over, even if Zentai will not be extradited.

“Last month we caught a big Nazi criminal,” he said, referring to Laszlo Csatary in Hungary. “It may be over in Australia, but it ain’t over elsewhere.”

Csatary, a former police officer, was arrested last month in Budapest for allegedly killing Jews in Ukraine in 1941. Budapest has decided not to try him for those charges, but is looking into others.

Australian Jews slammed the ruling while praising the rule of law.

Marika Weinberger, 84, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor whose mother and two grandmothers perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau, said of the Zentai ruling, “It does not come as a surprise. Yes, I am disappointed. Yes, I am sad. But I am not surprised.”

While she was a “proud Australian,” Weinberger said, her country’s governments have “never spoken up hard enough on the issue of alleged ex-Nazis in the country.”

“We remain the only country who could have and should have” convicted Nazi war criminals, she added. “This is why it hurts. I can’t understand it. I would have liked to live long enough that at least one would be convicted, so that we would show the world we care.”

Anna Berger, the president of the Australian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, described the decision as “regrettable,” but added that “we are loyal and grateful to this country for the shelter it gave us, and we respect the laws of the land even if we don’t like the decision.”

Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said in a statement, “The decision of the High Court will of course be respected and adhered to even though to many people it will seem like the triumph of narrow formal legalism over substantive justice. It will be distressing to many that Zentai will now live out his final days untroubled by any prospect of having to account for his past actions.”

Canberra opens ritual bath

For the first time, Orthodox Jews in Australia’s capital city have a ritual bath.

Mikvah Chaya Mushka Canberra opened its doors in Canberra this week for the small Jewish community of about 600 people.

There is no Jewish school or kosher butcher, and Orthodox and Progressive Jews share a community center for prayer services, but local Jews believe a mikvah will attract more Jews to the capital.

Chabad-Lubavitch, which sponsored the project, recently sent a young couple, Rabbi Dan and Naomi Avital, from Melbourne to assist the community and run the mikvah. Rebbetzin Naomi Avital has undergone training in one of Melbourne’s many ritual bathhouses.

Rabbi Avital said: “We have seen a tremendous growth in the community and participation in our events over last year and we believe this is the right time for this extraordinary development.”

The building contains two ritual baths and three bathrooms and will be officially opened next month by U.S. Ambassador Jeff Bleich, who was active with the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee before he took up his post in Australia in 2009.